Rabbi to address work, prayer and 'ambivalence'

September 05, 1994|By Frank P.L. Somerville | Frank P.L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Rabbi David Sulomm Stein understands the anxiety of many of his colleagues in the Jewish rabbinate as they prepare their sermons for this evening's, tomorrow's and Wednesday's Rosh Hashana services.

Their listeners will be more numerous and perhaps more attentive and critical than at any other time during the Jewish religious year -- 5755 in this case -- that begins with Rosh Hashana. Most synagogues around the world will be crowded as the High Holidays, or Days of Awe, begin.

But Rabbi Stein, spiritual leader of Beit Tikvah, Baltimore's only Jewish Reconstructionist congregation, is convinced that his listeners "will not be coming to Rosh Hashana services to judge me on the basis of my sermons."

The reason, he explained in an interview, is that the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism sees the rabbi less as an authority figure in an historical chain than as "a resource person, more an authority than the authority, more of a teacher, more of a reference librarian." As a person who enjoys singing, he also serves as cantor.

The role of the rabbi "is one of the most significant differences" between Jewish Reconstructionism and the three dominant traditions of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism in the United States, Rabbi Stein said.

The Reconstructionist is a peculiarly American branch that has grown out of the Conservative Jewish tradition in this country and Canada since the turn of the century. It is only about 25 years old as a separate denomination.

Rabbis of this tradition, such as David Sulomm Stein, do not call themselves "ordained" but rather "graduated" from Philadelphia's Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The scholarly center was founded in the late 1960s, based on the ideas of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, who had been a leader of the left wing of the Conservative movement after World War I.

"We're trying to reconstruct a Judaism that is compatible with American democracy," Rabbi Stein said. "And really to create a community within the larger American world that is not apart from it, but which is overlapping it."

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the Kaplan views of Judaism's future were fermenting, "people were being taught in school about fossils and pre-history, that the world is older than 5,700 years, and the science-vs.-religion kind of thing was getting stronger," said Beit Tikvah's rabbi.

"Kaplan was recasting the traditional terms of religion, talking about God, for example, in ways that offer people a bridge," he said. "Old ideas were being expressed differently, so people could feel they had intellectual integrity and remain loyal Jews.

"Nowadays, I think the Reconstructionist branch offers people a way back in -- people who, for one reason or another, have been outside Jewish religious tradition."

Rabbi Stein sees a metaphor for his work in his middle name. Sulomm, a name he shares with his wife, is a Hebrew term for the stairway between earth and heaven described in the biblical story of "Jacob's Ladder."

The movement of angels up and down that stairway conjures up for him an image of restlessness and self-determination in both Judaism and democracy. "Reconstructionism recognizes that in America, where Judaism is voluntary, people are likely to get more out of being Jewish if they are participating in making their Judaism," Rabbi Stein said.

It is largely for this reason that his sermons for Rosh Hashana, as for Sabbath worship generally, are no longer than about 15 minutes, and are intended to draw involvement in discussion by his congregation.

"We work together, congregants and I, to answer the questions they have about what is right, what is wrong, how to live our lives, how to conduct our worship services, about what our standards should be for Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah," he said. "As much as possible, we try to decide all those questions on a local community level."

At the service this evening that begins at 7:30, when Labor Day is ending and Rosh Hashana is starting, "Jews at Work" will be the subject of his sermon, Rabbi Stein advised his congregation of about 60 households.

"As we re-examine the course of our lives at this season," he said, "this is an especially good year for us adults to celebrate our laboring selves. At the same time, we can ask ourselves how our identities are tied up in our jobs, or lack of jobs, how we define security and success, and how what we do for a living affects the way we relate to others."

The meaning of the phrase, "the good life," has become distorted in recent years, the rabbi feels, but he still believes that "A Good New Year!" rather than "A Happy New Year!" is the correct greeting for Christians to use when they meet Jews this week.

At Congregation Beit Tikvah's service at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, various readings will cast light on the meaning and purpose of prayer, Rabbi Stein said. Beit Tikvah means Place of Hope, and for its worship it rents space at Roland Avenue and Bellemore Road from First Christian Church.

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